From CIT film course... to an IFTA nomination

Ahead of the Irish Film and Television Awards this weekend  Cork director Shaun O’Connor tells JENNIFER HORGAN about his love for film as his short A White Horse is up for an award
From CIT film course... to an IFTA nomination

A scene from A White Horse, directed by Corkman Shaun O’Connor (inset), which is up for an IFTA award this weekend

DIRECTOR Shaun O’Connor, who is up for an IFTA this weekend, came to film relatively late, making his first short in his late twenties. He’s made the most of his talent since.

His work has screened and won awards at festivals around the world. In 2020, Shaun was nominated for the Virgin Dublin Film Festival Discovery Award and his short film A White Horse was nominated for best short at this Saturday’s IFTA awards.

A White Horse tells the story of Bridget, a scared young girl who has escaped a mental institution. The reason for her incarceration: a romantic relationship with a fellow schoolgirl. 

Filmed in Cork city and county, the story explores how mental hospitals were once used as catch-alls for people considered ‘troublesome’ or ‘abnormal’, and touches on themes of mental health and homosexuality in the 1970s.

The film stars Cora Fenton (The Young Offenders) and newcomer Amber Deasy and was made with the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland ARRI Take Award.

Shaun was inspired to tell the story after discovering that gay conversion therapy was widespread in the British Isles in the ’60s and ’70s, and incredibly, is still legal in the UK and Ireland.

Online Awards

The IFTAS won’t be happening in person on Saturday; it will be a virtual event, broadcast on Virgin Media. O’Connor is certainly proud to be nominated and keen to mention those involved. He worked closely with writer Paul Cahill, producer Sinéad Barry and director of photography Jass Foley. It has been a great success story for the gifted team.

A White Horse was made three years ago and is still getting recognised, which is a delight to O’Connor and others involved in the film. “It’s atypical for a short to have that much of a run,” he says. “It has been screened at numerous festivals around the world and has also been invited to some which is always a thrill. We’ve delayed putting it online for that reason.”

The Film-maker

Shaun came to his career via a circuitous route, but it was always in him. He recalls being obsessed with film as a child, his parents often dragging him from the TV.

“Seeing Jurassic Park was really formative. I’m still in awe of Spielberg. I was born the same day Raiders of the Lost Arc came out. The guy is still making incredible films, 40 years on. I look back at films like Jaws and I’m spellbound. He was 27 then, a master director, and he’s still going strong.”

There’s certainly a bit of stardust about O’Connor, but what’s more apparent is his devotion to the craft of filmmaking.

“Initially, I didn’t understand the process of making a film but when I completed a module on film in what was then CIT, I realised it was possible. I could put these things together.

“I made a ten-minute documentary about the connections between UFO sightings and the folklore of Kerry. I mean, it wasn’t Citizen Kane, but it was good enough for a first try.’

O’Connor went on to complete a Masters in film in UCC.

‘Then I just asked myself, well, are you going to do this? So, I went out, bought a cheap Sony handycam and started doing sketches on social media. I did a feature film then which was a baptism of fire, but it still got screened at the Cork Film Festival.”

Rounded Professional

O Connor’s slow arrival to the world of film is matched by his attention to detail. He explains that he’s recently taken up acting. I suggest that he might want to star in a future film.

“Oh God no, I wouldn’t do that to you,” he laughs, “no, it’s just that through my training I learned all the technical parts of a making a film. I have that language but what I lacked was a confidence in speaking with actors. I’d say bland, general things like ‘make it bigger’ and I could tell I wasn’t getting the best from them. So, I’ve been taking acting classes with Tom Kibbe, who has worked with the best. It has made a huge difference to my process. It puts actors at their ease, and it means we can collaborate in a safe space where everyone is communicating clearly.

Creating in Ireland

O’Connor touches on the impact of Covid on creatives. “There have been fewer small budget films created. For a low budget venture, you couldn’t put people at risk. It was easier for big budget companies as they could afford to do whatever needed to be done. For independent filmmakers, it was very different.”

However, he’s keen to point out Ireland’s a good place to work as a filmmaker.

“Yes, film is well supported through various grants and awards and funding schemes. It’s a lot easier here than it might be in places like America where there is no overarching cinema fund. It’s also a relatively small industry so you get to know people and going to various festivals is a great way of doing that,”

O’Connor is very open to creating films abroad but up until now, Ireland has been his setting. “Whatever the genre, there is so much in the mindset to explore. It is such a rich scene. A White Horse captures an Ireland on the cusp of massive cultural change. The characters are at the epicentre of that. Irish culture is fascinating, and I suppose it always helps to write about what you know.”

The 2022 IFTA Awards Ceremony will be broadcast on Virgin Media One on Saturday 12 March.

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